Top 10 International Car Rental Tips
The serpentine road Trollstigen (The Troll Ladder), one of our most memorable driving experiences given its hair-raising steep climb, switchbacks, and narrowness as well as breathtaking scenery
International car rentals are very rewarding because they allow us to see and do things off the beaten path, especially to places where mass transit doesn't provide efficient coverage. When Julie and I visit waterfalls in foreign countries, we almost always have to rely on a rental car when we're self-touring. And while self-driving internationally does provide the flexibility and freedom that makes a trip unique and memorable, that independence also means there are plenty of ways that things can go wrong.
In this article, we're sharing our top 10 international car rental tips, which we've learned from having self-driven in over 20 countries around the world. As you can imagine from such a library of experiences, we've gone through some predicaments, made mistakes, and had some "Gee, I wish I had thought about that" moments. Hopefully, you can benefit from our tips so you don't have to go through some of the same car rental dramas that we went through.
Here are our top 10 tips in no particular order:
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Tip 1: Determine if you even need or want to rent a car
Here's a situation where the roads were so bad (potholes, ruts, and all) that it was wise to let a tour operator do the driving instead of trying to brave the roads of Uganda ourselves
While we've been singing the praises of independent touring by self-driving in the introduction, we recognize that there are situations where it may not be wise to self-drive. Indeed, we may find that we're better off going on a custom guided tour, or even relying completely on the transportation infrastructure. Our general rule of thumb is that if it's a developed country, we'd self-tour independently usually by self-driving. For example, we've self-driven in France, Italy, Canada, Great Britain, Croatia, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Norway, Iceland, Tahiti Island, Saint Lucia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Argentina/Chile (Patagonia only), and Japan (Hokkaido only). We'd only consider going the all-public-transportation route if the infrastructure of the country in question is extensive enough to even let us go waterfalling without a car (though we've only done this in Japan and Switzerland, and at the expense of time and flexibility). If it's a developing country, then we'd go with a customized guided tour. For example, we've done customized guided tours in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Jamaica, India, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Morocco, Peru, Vanuatu, etc. You get the idea.
The reason for this is that in a developed country, we would find it easier to self-drive or take public transportation or a combination of both. Usually the signs are clearly marked, the roads are in good shape, and the overall public infrastructure is good enough to not be that far off from the standard that we're used to back at home in the United States (in fact, some of the public infrastructure exceeds the quality of that in the States). This is especially the case if the trip is dominated by touring the major cities where public transportation is so convenient and useful that driving wouldn't make much sense.
In a developing country, the driving conditions tend to be much more chaotic. Traffic lights are more likely to be ignored or merely suggestions, most places are poorly signed (or without English), the concept of road lanes is pretty much non-existent, you have to get used to the organized chaos of the larger vehicles getting the right-of-way while pedestrians cross at their own risk, etc. The road conditions are sometimes so poor (like in the photo above) that it's impractical to self-drive them. You also have to get your head wrapped around the idea that you'll be sharing the road with cows, camels, elephants, tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, etc. coming from all different directions, angles, and especially from blind spots. Indeed, it's a very different way of driving, and it's a bit overwhelming to come to terms with all these differences without having lived there to get used to the conditions. Therefore, we would leave the driving up to a local, who knows the methods to the madness, knows how to ask for directions, generally has a good idea of how to get from place to place, etc. So this is where we usually work with a tour operator to have a customized guided tour tailored to an itinerary that we've come up with as part of our pre-trip planning.
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Tip 2: Consider the location of your rental car pickup (and dropoff)
The train station and bus stop was on this street in Bath. On the back side of the train station was where we did the meet and greet with the car rental company to pick up our rental car
While our first instinct would be to hire a car from the airport as soon as we arrive, this is usually our last resort. We've found that we can save hundreds of US dollars by trying to hire and dropoff the car away from the airport, but there are some tradeoffs to consider. If the destination has public transportation, then we try to pick up the rental car at a rail station to save ourselves the markup in airport fees as well as the first few (or last few) days when we're staying in the city and not driving anyways.
For example, on our month-long UK trip back in 2014, we hired a car (and ended the hire) in Bath, England instead of the obvious choice at London Heathrow Airport. We pre-arranged with the rental car company (which was Europcar) to pick us up at the train station on the morning that we planned to leave the city, and an employee picked us up and took us to their rental office on the outskirts of town to wrap up the rental formalities. When we returned the rental car in Bath, it was about 4 days before we flew home since we knew that we could tour Bath on foot for a full day plus we'd have two more full days to enjoy London without a car. So not only did we save money from not picking up the rental car at the airport, but we saved about 5 days worth of car hire plus incidental fees from parking and gas from potentially having to drive on those extra days as well!
While we prefer to rent from rail stations away from the airport, it's also possible to save even more money renting from a downtown location (not by the rail station), but we learned the hard way that sometimes this is not a good option because they tend to have even more limited hours than at rail stations (let alone airports). While airports are typically open 24/7, the rail stations tend to have more typical 9 to 5 hours (or 9-8 with the odd siesta closure if the country observes it like in Spain).
However, after an unpleasant incident in Algeciras, Spain where their rental car location was not connected by rail, we learned firsthand the big drawback of these limited hours. In that incident, we had a tardy ferry from Morocco that caused us to show up at the car rental office about 15 minutes after they had closed for the weekend (starting from 2pm Saturday and didn't open again until Monday morning). So we were potentially without a car for the first couple of days thereby causing major chaos and losses on our carefully planned trip. Fortunately, we had booked with a consolidator like Auto Europe
so we ultimately had a workaround for this problem (which we'll get to later in this article), but this experience dramatically underscores the pitfalls of trying to pick up a rental car away from locations with longer opening hours.
By the way, it can be tempting to go to the other extreme and try to save car rental days in the middle of the trip. For example, we were tempted to rely on the train system around Madrid, Segovia, and Toledo in the middle of our four weeks in Spain to save about 3-4 days of rental. However, we've learned that it's often less headache and might even work out to be cheaper (or competitively-priced) to do a continuous long term rental than to try to split up the trip into multiple rentals. Obviously, this would have to be priced out to see how it would work financially, but the headaches of having to collect our belongings and deal with car rental queues can be a waste of precious vacation time. I'd argue that the threshold for splitting up the car rental in the middle of the trip would have to be at least 5 or more days without the car before I'd consider doing something like that.
Another consideration to make concerning rental car pickup and dropoff is whether or not to dropoff in a different location than where we picked up the car. We've had rentals where we had to pay a drop-off fee of around $500 USD, but we've also had rentals where there wasn't this explicit cost. It depends on the rental company, but it also depends on whether the rental car office in the proposed locations of your trip can accommodate this. In our Spain trip, we started in Algeciras and ended in Barcelona. Obviously, it wouldn't make much sense to drive all the way back down to Algeciras just to return the car to the original location.
Finally, there are times where we would prefer to hire from a rental car agency with a pick-up location at the airport. Typically this would be where public transportation infrastructure is either poor or non-existent. We learned a pretty hard lesson pertaining to this point on a trip to Patagonia back in 2007. On that trip, we had pre-arranged for a booking with Budget at El Calafate, Argentina. But when we showed up, there was no kiosk for Budget at the small airport there (though there was a kiosk for Hertz
), and when we tried to call Budget, nobody picked up.
Eventually, we just hired a taxi to take us to the Budget office, and when we were dropped off (the taxi wouldn't wait around), the office was closed. After a few tense moments of being unable to call (again, no one picked up and we got answering machines in Spanish) then figuring out what to do next, we finally walked in the general direction of the main drag of El Calafate. That was when we were very fortunate to find the Hertz
rental car office on the main drag was still open, and that they had a car (actually a monster 4wd Toyota Hiilux truck) available. Sure, they're not the cheapest, but that rental office saved our Patagonia trip.
So do your research and see if it makes sense to pickup at the airport or at the rail station, and evaluate whether to do a one-way hire or to return to the origin of the hire.
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Tip 3: Book with a consolidator if language can be a problem
While riding the ferry to Algeciras, Spain from Tangier-MED, Morocco allowed us to see Gibraltar from a distance, that same ferry caused us a lot of rental car headaches in Spain due to its tardiness
We're usually pretty wary of the middle man whenever it comes to making transactions. However, Julie and I can attest to the value of having a rental car consolidator like Auto Europe
because in one particular incident, they saved our 2015 Spain trip.
Before we get into how we were rescued by them, let's first get into what a car rental consolidator does. First, they are wholesalers who can consolidate rentals and negotiate better rates than individuals doing one-off hires. They also have the means to price compare from a bunch of different car rental agencies (including the major carriers that we've gone with in the past like Europcar, Hertz
, etc.) and cherry pick the ones with the best rates, then pass the savings directly to us. This process is transparent to us because they've already booked on our behalf. Now since we're not doing the booking directly, we have to make sure we understood the terms like what's covered in the insurance, distance limitations, one-way dropoff fees, and other things (though we have to do that anyways when we rent directly with the rental agency). We'll get into the insurance and rental terms later in this article in Lesson 7.
Second, the consolidator is available by phone toll-free 24/7. This means that whenever we have to deal with the rental car agency over some misunderstanding or when we get in trouble for some reason, we would have someone to talk to (in a language we're fluent in like English) to work out the problem. It's this aspect about having a consolidator like Auto Europe
that saved us on our Spain trip. The reason why was because our ferry from Tangier-MED, Morocco to Algeciras, Spain was delayed well over an hour. So when we finally arrived at the Europcar in Algeciras to pick up the long-term rental car hire, the office was closed for the weekend starting at 2pm (we had showed up probably at about 2:15pm). There was no live person to talk to, nobody at the office, and everything was in Spanish (and we weren't fluent enough to handle these types of situations efficiently).
Luckily, we had booked with Auto Europe
so when Julie made her smart phone call toll free to them, she spoke to a live person in Texas (USA), who then worked behind the scenes to get us an equivalent rental car at no extra cost near the train station in Malaga, Spain. The only catch was that we had to hire a taxi to go the two hours to that location in Malaga (that costed us around 110 euros), but at least we were able to salvage our trip even though the Spain part of our trip started about 4 hours later and a couple hundred euros pricier than we had expected.
Since that incident, we're quite convinced of the virtues of going with a consolidator, especially in places where the language barrier can be an issue. Even for trips where english is widely spoken, the consolidator can help for those times when the remote rental car offices have limited hours and we find ourselves on the wrong end of their opening hours. That said, we've only dealt with consolidators who specialize in Europe. They wouldn't have helped us in our Patagonia trip in 2007 that we discussed in Lesson 1.
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Tip 4: Bring your own personal navigation GPS device (just in case)
On just about all of our self-driving trips, we bring our personal GPS navigation system, which is shown here on the lower right
Generally, it's a good idea for us to have some kind of navigation device to help us get through unfamiliar places without the need for strings attached (like an international network connection for smart phones). Without GPS navigation, it would be like we're "driving blind" and it would take even more time to get from place to place as we'd be too busy looking at road atlases and searching for signs that are likely to be easily missed. Indeed, on just about all of our self-driving trips, we've gone with a dedicated GPS navigation device.
For over the past 10 years, we've used a Garmin Nüvi
that has pre-loaded maps (or at least an SD card containing the maps we need). We've bought or uploaded a purchased map from Mapsource for places like Europe
, Australia / New Zealand
, and even Japan. I know this is becoming less commonplace as I suppose GoogleMaps or other free maps can be loaded onto a navigation unit or smart phone, but our Garmin Nuvi and Mapsource method has served us well for the past 10 years or so, and it continues to do so. I guess I'll finally cave in and switch once I feel confident that I'm not losing some of the control and capabilities of our existing scheme (which also lets us do trip logging). On top of the basic maps, I also upload waypoints from our trip research for attractions, accommodations, and other key landmarks.
Even though packing our own navigation device for off-line (non-internet) use might seem like overkill as some cars come with a built-in navigation system with more up-to-date and precise maps, we can't assume that it will always be available nor be included in our rental rates. In fact, when we have had the two systems at work at the same time, we've encountered instances where the built-in navigation was wrong and our personal device did a better job, while we've had other cases where the built-in navigation was far superior to our outdated Nuvi. Then again, we've still had cases where both navigation systems were wrong or misleading. So I guess none of these systems are fool-proof, and there will be some instances where we have to trust our experience and instincts when the GPSes are wrong. That said, I generally rely on the built-in navigation for cities (where the up-to-date info becomes critical when negotiating one-way streets, roundabouts, dead-ends, and restricted traffic areas), and I generally rely on our own navigation system for rural areas.
Finally, we want to reinforce that even if you remember to bring the navigation unit, don't forget to bring the necessary accessories that go with it like the car charger and the GPS mount. We've had a few close calls where we had to drive without the benefits of our own navigation system working. For example, on our France trip, I forgot to pack the car charger so we were without our Nuvi for most of the province of Normandie until we finally found a store that stocked such a charger in the Lyon train station. In another instance, I had forgotten to pack the GPS mount, and we learned firsthand how surprisingly difficult and distracting it was to use the GPS nav system without a mount. Then, when you return the rental car, don't forget to remove that easily forgotten mount. We made that mistake (leaving the mount clinging to the windshield) when we returned the car in Calgary, Alberta on a Canadian Rockies trip. Moreover, we've had a handful of other close calls of nearly leaving that mount behind over the years so we can certainly appreciate how easy it is to lose these things.
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Tip 5: Bring your own car seat if bringing a child
We've saved a lot of money by bringing this lightweight five-point-harness child car seat on our international trips involving driving or extensive touring in a tour operator's car
Granted, this particular international car rental tip only pertains to parents bringing their child along. However, ever since we've been bringing our daughter along on our trips, we had to address her safety, especially in the car. And in our experiences, most of the places we find worthwhile to visit (especially natural attractions like waterfalls) typically involve having our own rental car or riding in a tour operator's car for long distances. Therefore, we must secure our girl to that child car seat. In addition to safety, we know it's illegal (at least in the United States) to drive around without the child restrained in a properly installed car seat. And even if the laws concerning child seats are laxed or non-existent internationally, it's good practice to have the car seat anyways, especially considering how often deaths from traffic accidents tend to occur worldwide.
We've been bringing along our lightweight, easy-to-install, five-point-harness car seat
ever since our daughter was about 8 months old, and we still use it even though it's been at least four years since. Basically we stuck with it because that five-point harness is said to be the safest for the child. It also has anchor straps that can buckle to the frame of the main back seat of the car so it's less likely to become detached from the car in a crash. We also purchased a car seat bag with shoulder straps (like the one by J.L. Childress
) because that allowed us to carry the car seat on our backs to free up our hands in those situations where we're moving around without a rental car (e.g. at airports, subways, train stations, etc.). Of course it helped that our car seat was also lightweight and not overly burdensome (although it is bulky).
Anyways, by bringing our own car seat, we have also saved money on car rentals. Granted, we're willing to accept the inconvenience of lugging that car seat around to save on the cost here. We've explored the idea of renting the car seat directly with the car rental agency, but that almost always entailed paying a per-day rate for the priviledge. Indeed, when we've done the sums, the overall cost for long term hires would often exceed the cost of buying such a car seat outright. We're aware that some rental car agencies like Hertz
may include a car seat for free as part of the rental, but certain conditions apply, and we still have to price out the cost of the overall rental to see if it makes sense from a cost standpoint regardless.
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Tip 6: Make sure your accommodations have dedicated parking
This car park in Granada, Spain had a few dedicated parking spaces for the apartment-like suites that we stayed at, but the spaces and driving corridors were very tight
When we knew that we were planning for a self-driving holiday (especially a long term one), that meant that when we tried to book accommodations, we preferred the ones with dedicated parking spaces. Usually apartments are pretty good about having dedicated parking spaces, but it's not such a guaranteed thing at hotels and B & Bs (bed and breakfasts). Indeed, knowing that there's parking spaces in advance would take quite a bit of the stress off of trying to find street parking or other forms of public parking.
That said, if do find ourselves in a situation where parking's not guaranteed, then we would look for public car parks that are supervised or require payments (like those barricades that only lift once you've paid and validated your ticket). We figured car thieves are less likely to target these places, especially since you have to pay and validate your ticket to get out. We've even forsaken free parking for a paid parking structure for reasons of security (e.g. in Sevilla, we could've parked by the university for free on the weekend nights we were there, but we didn't feel comfortable with the unprotected nature of those spaces so we stomached the 20 euros per night for that piece of mind).
Sometimes it's too inconvenient or difficult to drive into old city centers where the accommodations may be located (even if valet parking or dedicated parking is available). Sometimes we even have to find public parking several blocks or even a mile or so away from the accommodation, which would require us to walk that far just to check in. And only then would we find out from the accommodation where the best parking spots would be (if available).
We've had numerous instances of this throughout our travels (e.g. in Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia, where we've parked outside the city walls; in Mont-Saint-Michel in France where we had to take a shuttle to traverse the 11-mile causeway; in Montepulciano where we walked up to the accommodation before they gave us a permit to move the car across the ZTL and park next to a church). Indeed, we had to be open-minded about being flexible, and that's why dedicated car park spaces (even at the expense of forsaking a prime central location) can save quite a bit of grief (not to mention the potential for a surprise penalty or fine).
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Tip 7: Learn to drive stick shift to save money and headaches
This 1990 Legend stick shift was what I drove for 15 years (before it had to be retired due to too many maintenance issues) so driving stick shift in Europe was not an issue for me
I recognize that this particular tip might be a bit difficult for most people these days since it appears that the cars sold or rented in the United States have more computer-controlled parts, including the transmission. So while Americans are being kind of forced into driving with automatics (with very limited opportunities to learn to drive stick as their availability continues to diminish over time), that's actually a bad thing when trying to self drive in places like Europe, where smaller, simpler, and more efficient cars are the norm rather than the exception.
Consider this. We've found that when we rent vehicles overseas (especially in Europe), automatic transmission cars typically cost about 30% to 50% more than equivalent manual transmission cars. Often times, the automatic transmission vehicles aren't even available. We've explored this before to see whether we could split up the driving duties (often at additional cost due to the extra driver). And almost all the time, we wind up deciding that I'm the sole driver due to my familiarity with driving stick shift as well as the increased cost of not hiring stick shift.
So the takeaway from this experience is that if you must have an automatic transmission vehicle, you need to book well in advance to try to maximize the chances of securing such a vehicle. As you can imagine, when Americans drive abroad, that drives up the demand, but the supply of automatics remain limited in Europe. That said, outside of Europe in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, this is not as much of an issue since automatics are quite commonplace in those countries.
So if you want the flexibility of being able to drive stick, I'm not really sure what you can do if you don't own a manual transmission car. There are used cars out there with manual transmission, but you really have to look hard. Even when I wanted to replace my old stick shift with another stick shift, I had a hard time doing so because they're simply not that common in the US anymore. Thus, I'm stuck with an automatic, and I don't really have an opportunity to teach Julie and Tahia (when she's old enough) how to drive stick unless we get lucky and chance upon a manual further down the line.
I guess having a crash course (no pun intended) in being steady with the clutch and not stalling while in Europe is another option as often times the necessity of the situation is a pretty effective way to pick something up quickly. But if you do go this route, make sure you've budgeted enough time on your trip to do a few trial runs at a parking lot or some not-so-busy street. The idea is to get comfortable with changing gears (including downshifting if you have to slow down at a curve or something), and especially figuring out how to stop the car and get moving again in first gear. Then, build yourself up as you drive out of the city and into the more relaxing countryside. Over time, you'll pick it up. It's not that hard, but it does take getting used to.
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Tip 8: Reduce excess insurance to $0 (if possible)
This mirror was hanging by its electrical wire after we knocked it off in a tight corridor at a car park. Fortunately, we were covered for $0 excess insurance so we were covered for this incident
At the time of booking, chances are you'll have to decide whether or not you want to be covered by rental car insurance (in some cases, you don't have a choice). And then, you'll have to figure out to what extent you want the coverage to be. If you're coming from the United States, your domestic car insurance will be unlikely to cover you internationally so this is not a decision to take lightly. In our experience, the key decision to make is whether to purchase the rental car insurance through the rental car agency you're hiring from or to rely on the insurance through your credit card company that you've made the rental payments with. Julie and I have gone through both claims processes so we can tell you firsthand what it's like for each case.
If you go through the rental car agency and say you get in an accident or something happens to the car (assuming they're within the terms of the insurance), then you don't pay anything additional out-of-pocket unless there's a deductible or "excess". Having this type of coverage increases your rental rate, and sometimes the total cost may exceed the base rate of the entire hire itself. If we do go with the rental car insurance, we generally try to reduce our liability to $0 excess so we would not have to pay anything more out-of-pocket (you'd be surprised what you can get dinged for - e.g. cracks or chippies in the windshield, scratches to the body, broken side mirrors, flat tires, etc.).
Julie and I have had a few instances where going through the rental car insurance saved us a lot of money and time. For example, back in 2008 we managed to jar loose the oil pan protector on the underside of our rental car in outback Australia in Queensland. Luckily, we had $0 excess insurance so we were covered for that. More recently, in Spain, we knocked off a side mirror on the passenger side while exiting a tight car park. Again, since we had $0 excess coverage through the consolidator
for our Europcar hire, we didn't have to pay additional out-of-pocket expenses.
If you go through say a credit card insurance (typically through a third-party agency like VisaRental or MasterRental), then you could potentially save a lot of money by not paying the extra rates for rental car insurance from the agency itself. However, if you do get into an incident, then you first have to pay for the damages out-of-pocket, then you'd have to go through the claims process to get back that money. We've actually had such an incident
where we had hit a kangaroo in 2006, then had to pay nearly $3000 USD out-of-pocket, and then it took nearly 4 months to recover most of that money (not all of it) through MasterRental.
The reason for such a long delay was that the claims process made us prove that we had declined all other forms of insurance and coverage so we wouldn't defraud the insurance by "double dipping." Even when we jumped through the hoops and over the hurdles per their claims process, they still tried to find ways to not pay out our claim (citing erroneously that we didn't follow the process or something like that). Eventually, we'd get back most of our money, but we were still out 10% of the claim amount due to GST (goods and service tax). To make a long story short, that ordeal with MasterRental and Thrifty Rent-a-car was so unpleasant and tedious that we no longer trust the credit card insurance offering.
So the bottom line with deciding which coverage to go with ultimately comes down to this. Is the piece of mind and minimal hassle worth the higher cost of the rental? Or are you willing to roll the dice and save money hoping you don't have to go through the claims process to recover any additional out-of-pocket expenses from car rental damage? We tend to prefer having the piece of mind, but I can totally understand the allure of not having to pay extra for it. After all, no one expects to have bad things happen to them while on holiday.
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Tip 9: Be proactive about worn tires
This was the farm stay in Iceland where we woke up to a flat tire on our high clearance 4wd vehicle. Luckily, the owners had a tractor to act as a jack and we were able to change to a full-sized spare
Flat tires have happened often enough on our self-driving trips that we just have to say something about it here. First, I have to warn you that this easily overlooked aspect of the car rental can come back and bite you as it has us on the handful of occasions that we have had to deal with this. You see, the big problem is that some car rental companies try to maximize their operating margins by minimizing the amount of preventative maintenance on them, especially when it comes to tire maintenance. Indeed, we've often driven out of the lot with worn tires, and lo and behold, one thing leads to another and before we know it, we have a flat tire or at least one tire is losing pressure. At that point, we then have to stomach a delay (and possible additional costs) in getting the problem fixed, which is a waste of precious vacation time. Moreover, it can be downright dangerous as most of the roads we drive overseas involve winding and steep mountain roads, where any loss of traction can be fatal.
Just to give you a sense of the flat tire incidents that we've had to deal with over the years, here are some examples. Our first example is a domestic rental example in Buffalo, New York in 2007. That was when we woke up to a flat tire on the day we were to return the rental car at the Buffalo Airport. Since we didn't have any insurance, we were responsible for them changing out $500 worth of tires. I was not happy about that incident, but I didn't feel like there was much I could do, especially since we were going to Iceland immediately thereafter. We were probably naive about how worn the tires were at the time so we didn't pay as much attention to it at the time of hire.
A few weeks later, we had another flat tire when we were at a farm stay in Northern Iceland. This time, we were very lucky that the friendly owners of the farm stay had a very capable jack (his tractor) and we had a fully-inflated full-sized spare. When he told me tongue-in-cheek that the "tires looked tired" (i.e. they're very worn), that was kind of my wake-up call that maybe rental car companies (Budget Rent-a-car in this case) aren't very honest when it comes maintenance cycles (or lack thereof). Once we had the spare tires put on, and we made the necessary phone calls to the rental car company, we'd eventually make time to take it to a garage in Akureyri, where they could then replace all four tires. Not only did this waste some precious vacation time, but they even wanted us to pay for all the new tires! Again, we were lucky that reason eventually won out and Budget didn't charge us for these new tires.
On a trip to the UK in 2014, we had to deal with another flat tire incident when I noticed in Fort Williams, Scotland that one of the tires was starting to get low on tire pressure. But given that we didn't want to waste too much time on this issue (and it was a weekend while we were staying in Glasgow so the garages were closed), we didn't take care of this issue until we eventually made it down to Conwy, Wales. After pumping up the tire a few times throughout the long drives to get to this point, I saw that it took less than 24 hours after pumping in the air before the tire was low on pressure again. So that was when we finally decided to give Auto Europe
a call. After spending nearly an hour talking with the company, we were told to wait at a supermarket near the Llandudno Junction. We were given a two-hour time window when the emergency roadside service would show up, but that was two hours we couldn't afford to waste. I guess in my irrational and furious state of mind, I just decided to go to Swallow Falls, then come back to the meeting spot, but it turned out that the emergency roadside service showed up sooner than what was told to us verbally. So when we saw that roadside service van leave right in front of us, we chased him until we got to the garage. I guess that guy was mad at us for making him wait and he charged us through the rental company some ridiculous fee of 75 pounds for the trouble.
Finally, the most recent incident was in Spain where our rental car that we took out of Cordoba, Spain had worn treads. Julie already had a bad feeling about this, but it wasn't until we finally had a free day in San Sebastian, Spain that we finally did something about it. With the rainy weather and the upcoming mountain drive in the Pyrenees, we knew we were playing Russian Roulette with our safety by driving such steep and winding narrow roads in bad weather on worn out treads. So we had to pay our own way by bus to get to the office from the Playa de la Concha, stomach the car rental office queues, then explain to the worker that we needed the tires to be changed even though it hadn't caused problems (yet). Once we dropped off the car in the morning and let them take care of the issue, we then took the bus back to the main part of San Sebastian for some uneasy city touring before we came back in the afternoon after the siesta. So we took the bus over there again, waited in the queue again, and finally recovered our rental car with the new tires. In this instance, we pretty much lost a few hours and the ability to relax while on our lone free day in San Sebastian, but at least we were able to have confidence as we were about to spend the next few days in the Pyrenees.
So given how frequently such incidents have hapened to us, how can you defend against this?
Well, one technique is to try to be proactive and pay very close attention to the condition of both the car and the tires during the pre-rental inspection (when you're handed the keys but you haven't driven out of the lot yet). If you see the tires are worn, then flag the issue as soon as possible. You might have to raise a big stink about it because the rental car agency might think there's no issue until something happens. Regardless, it's your safety and time that's at stake.
Nevertheless, just raising this issue will inevitably mean a delay up front (especially since car rental offices these days tend to have long queues). Then, there could be additional delays in trying to get an alternate car with better tires or having to wait for them to change the tires (assuming that can be done right then and there). If you're short on time, then you might have to note the issue up front by telling them that you'll try to find time during the trip to get to a garage that the rental agency deals with, and then change the tires at that time. Again, that costs precious vacation time, but the safety of the rental can't be underestimated.
Without being proactive about the tires, the next thing you can do is to flag the issue as it happens (i.e. a blown out tire or a slowly leaking tire that finally can't be reliably driven on). There is considerable risk in going this route (as you can see, we've gone through it at least 3-4 times already), which is why I highly recommend being proactive about this before rolling the dice with your safety. But if the unthinkable happens, then try to immediately notify the rental car agency (or consolidator
if you've done your booking through them).
Don't delay because in the long run, it could ultimately cost you even more money than you anticipated (as it did us in Wales) let alone your health. Obviously if you're in or near a big city, take advantage of it because there are more facilities there than say in more remote area where services and facilities (and their hours) would be limited.
And if you do find yourself painted into a corner and having to drive with worn tires, just be cognizant of the risk involved. That means you know you have to drive even more defensively than before, slow down, brake gently, and try to avoid rough roads (where the tires could wear down even faster). Then, be opportunistic in rectifying the situation as soon as possible.
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Tip 10: Be mindful of the local driving conditions and customs
Some main roads are actually clinging to sides of mountains or cliffs (and are therefore necessarily narrow and bi-directional). This is the rule rather than the exception in much of Europe
This last tip is kind of a common sense catch-all for all the things to consider concerning the driving conditions before hiring the car (as you choose the kind of car you want) as well as during the car hire as you try to adjust to these local driving conditions.
Road sizes and how it impacts the car you choose to hire
Let's first start with how respecting the local driving conditions and customs can impact the kind of car you choose before you hire the car. In our experience, when we intend to drive in Europe, we've learned that the roads tend to be very narrow and often times rough (thanks to cobblestone streets) and steep. There are even times when street parking or parking partially on curbs (like in the UK) could wind up turning a typically wide two-lane road into a single-lane bi-directional road. Indeed, we've learned that the towns and cities can get quite crowded, which means space is at a premium, and thus parking spaces are also very tight.
Therefore, it would make a lot of sense to hire a car that was small. Of course, it can't be so small that it couldn't fit our luggages or our third passenger (e.g. our daughter with her car seat). And it might be too hard to try to conceal the luggages from opportunistic thieves looking for their next break-in victim. But at the same time, the rental car can't be a giant road hog making it impractical to drive the narrow alleyways and mountain roads as well as trying to park with it. So to that end, we tend to hire a small- to mid-sized car. The intermediate-sized car is probably as large as we can go. However, compact cars might be too small for us unless it was just Julie and I traveling alone.
If we're driving in New Zealand or Australia, we don't have to deal as much with such tight alleyways and parking spaces (mostly because those countries have more wide open spaces). However, we still can't get too complacent since their roads are still not as wide as the ones we're used to in the United States, plus there aren't that many multi-lane highways so we definitely have to be very patient when trying to pass slower cars on those two-lane roads.
Letting faster drivers pass
Speaking of the prevalence of two-lane roads, this is why I advocate liberally using pullouts and passing lanes to let faster drivers pass. There's no need to induce stress for yourself and the driver behind you by being stubborn about not letting people pass. That said, the opportunities may be limited to exercise pullouts or passing lanes given how a lot of roads lack shoulders or space in general. But try to do the courteous thing and let people who are more familiar with the roads or have somewhere to go at greater haste than you pass. I guarantee you, your drive will be less tense and you might even get a thank you gesture (usually with two strobes of the hazard lights) from the person doing the passing.
Which side of the road do you drive on?
Another thing to consider is which side of the road you're on. While we in the United States are used to driving on the right side of the road (i.e. driver side of the car is on the left as the driver is almost always closer to the middle of the road while the passenger side is closer to the curb), you'd be amazed at how much of the world actually drives on the left side of the road. If we have to drive on the left side of the road, the driver side of the car is now on the right. Again, as long as you remember the driver sits closer to the middle of the road while the passenger sits closer to the curb, this simple rule should at least help you stay oriented (as it would feel weird to be sitting closer to the curb than the middle of the road when driving).
Just to give you an idea of how much of the world drives on the left, we've driven on the left in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the United Kingdom, and even Japan. There were also many other countries that drive on the left like a large part of sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand, and India (though for these countries, we wouldn't want to drive so this is less of an issue here).
When operating the car, you also have to get used to doing things with the opposite hand. For example, if you're used to driving on the right, you usually flip the turn signal with the left hand and the windshield wipers with the right. You also shift gears with manual transmission (or even automatic transmission) with the right hand. Conversely, if you drive on the left, then you typically would flip the turn signal with the right hand and the windshield wipers with the left (though I've driven a Lancer in New Zealand where this was flipped around causing some confusion where I'd often flip the windshield wipers when I intended to flip the turn signal and vice versa). Meanwhile, you would be changing gears with the left hand, which might take some getting used to. Fortunately, you don't have to remember the order of the pedals (clutch on far left, brakes in middle, accelerator on far right), because they're the same regardless of whether the car was meant to be driven on the right or on the left.
Other things to be mindful of are the roundabouts (there are fewer traffic lights abroad than what we're accustomed to in the United States) so if you're driving on the left side of the road, you go clockwise when the opportunity presents itself, while if you're driving on the right side of the road, you go counterclockwise (or anticlockwise) when you have the opportunity to get in. By the way, please do signal when trying to leave the roundabout, especially when crossing lanes to let the other drives know someone is breaking the circular pattern.
Roundabouts can be particularly daunting when there are at least three or more lanes as it's possible to have to cross through multiple lanes to reach a particular exit. It can be especially confusing if a given roundabout has more than four exits, or even has stop lights in the middle of the roundabout itself! Believe me, I've had many instances of taking the wrong exit at such roundabouts, and the key is to not panic and let the GPS (provided it's up-to-date and accurate) help you find alternate routes to get you to where you need to go.
No free right turns
In most of the world, there is no free right turn (if driving on the right) or free left turn (if driving on the left). This means, you not only have to come to a complete stop at the lights, but you can't proceed until your light turns green (indeed, that free turn seems to be an American thing).
Right-of-way on conflicts with turns
If you drive on the right side of the road, the left turn is across traffic and longer. Conversely, if you drive on the left, the right turn is across traffic and longer. It's possible to have a conflict when a person making the longer turn does so at the same time a person makes the shorter turn to the same street or lane. So to arbitrate this conflict, generally the priority goes to the driver making the shorter turn. So if I was making a right turn onto a different street while someone is making a left turn onto that same street that I'm going on, I would have the right-of-way.
This seems to be the convention in most parts of the world (certainly in the United States), but there is a notable exception in New Zealand. In that instance, the person making the longer (right) turn gets the priority over the person making the shorter (left) turn. This frequently results in situations where we'd wait to make our right turn while the person making the left turn onto the same street would insist that we go first. Conversely, if we were making the left turn, the person making the right turn would race in front of us to remind us that they have the right of way.
Restricted Traffic Zones
Restricted Traffic Zones are basically pedestrian-only zones or vehicle-free zones. They may have various acronyms like ZTL or Zona Trafico Limitato in Italian. Anyways, these zones typically occur in historical city centers or town centers. This is a major reason why European cities are so charming and so compact in the first place (because they don't allow vehicles to drive through such areas and kind of ruin that charm). They're denoted with the universal symbol of a red-rimmed circle with big white filling in the middle.
When you see such signs, it basically means don't try to drive through unless you have special access priviledges (typically if your hotel can hook you up with a permit to offset the inevitable citation). There are hidden cameras placed at just about every one of these restricted zone entrances so the authorities pretty much know if you've gone where you're not supposed to go, or even if you've gone the wrong way on a one-way street. I've had a co-worker get his ticket several months after his trip was over after going the wrong way on a one-way street out of frustration from having a hard time finding his accommodation in a city center near Naples, Italy.
This kind of traffic restriction is also a major reason why it's wise to first find public parking (preferably a structure), then walk to the accommodation when checking in to see if there's a better alternative to park closer. If the alternate or closer parking spot exists, at least the people at the accommodation can tell you how to drive there. Without this guidance, it's pretty hard to navigate the city centers along with the chaotic traffic, the keep-out zones, and the one-way streets. Indeed, you could wind up wasting valuable time (and money) figuring out where to go.
Most of the main streets and highways have automatic cameras that try to take a picture of offenders by capturing the face of the person driving and the license plate number as it happens. Usually, there are signs warning you that there's an upcoming camera (typically an icon of a camera as opposed to words) so there is some heads up that you're about to approach it. The bottom line is to respect the speed limits (15-30km/h in built-up areas and 80-100km/h or even 120-140km/h in high-speed highways) and drive defensively.
In addition to the automated stationary cameras, many police cars also have speed cameras (with visual captures in addition to the radar) to capture the offense. So they don't necessarily have to pull you over to catch you. Sometimes, they'll just send the photo and the evidence of when it occurred to your rental car agency and have them pass that fine onto you. I've had this happen to me on my first day driving in New Zealand back in 2004, and Maui Rental Car charged me an additional penalty on top of the speeding fine when I returned the car.
And say if you do get a traffic fine for speeding but you try to find a way to avoid paying for it, the rental car companies do have your credit card information so they'll charge your credit card the penalty amount. Then you can try to dispute it with the credit card company, but I'm sure the "seller" will have a pretty solid story behind why this dispute would be erroneous under such circumstances. The bottom line is that you mind as well pay the fine anyways and avoid dragging out a losing battle.
The same situation arises in parking violations as well. You can try to avoid paying for it, but the rental car company has your credit card information and will charge directly to it. Sometimes, the rental car company will just be a conduit to the governing authority that issued out the parking citation. So how easy is it to get into this mess in the first place?
Well, allow us to tell you what happened to us while we were parking at a meter in Caernarfon, North Wales. We didn't have enough change to get us past two hours. Unfortunately, Julie insisted that we have lunch at a sit-down place, and then we toured the Caernarfon Castle, which takes more than an hour to tour. Little did we realize that there was a flat rate parking area behind the castle until it was too late when we were already within the castle complex. So to make a long story short, when we returned to the car, we saw the ticket in a waterproof plastic cover pinned to our windshield, and we owed 50 pounds. We had the option to pay early online to reduce the fine, but we were lazy and eventually paid the full 50 pounds months later from home.
The bottom line is that parking can be scarce in the cities, and you have to pay very close attention to the signs in terms of how long you have to park at the meter, and whether you can't squat there and keep feeding the meter (assuming you have the loose change to keep the meter maid happy). In order to play it safe, we tend to prefer structured parking, where you take a ticket, then feed it to a machine and pay to validate it on the way out. Then, insert that validated ticket at the barrier to raise it and leave the car park. You just have to watch out for the tight corridors upon exiting, because this was how I managed to break off the side view mirror on our recent Spain trip.
While I've mentioned earlier in this article about how toll roads can increase the overall cost of renting a car, there's actually a silver lining. We've noticed that most of the highways requiring tolls tend to have the best conditioned surfaces as well as the least traffic. So often times, we would prefer going the toll road route if we're interested in saving precious time as opposed to going a longer distance with more traffic to save money. That's definitely something to consider when choosing your driving route to get from point A to point B.
Now there is one drawback to toll roads that might annoy the heck out of American drivers. It's that such roads have fewer exits (i.e. they could be spaced at least 5-10 minutes or more apart from each other. So if you find yourself missing an exit, it might take a bit longer than expected to exit, go back the other way, and then finally take the correct exit (with an additional toll for the extra distance driven).
Other nick nacks
I'm sure there are many more of these little caveats when it comes to respecting the local driving rules and regulations as well as conditions. For example, air conditioning in the car is pretty vital if the weather can get hot. Moreover, cigarette lighters that work are important for keeping the navigation device charged as well as possibly our phone being charged if we brought a splitter or had additional cigarette lighter sockets. And the USB interface might be helpful for filling the silence with some music for those long drives when the local radio stations aren't doing the job entertaining us. The list goes on and on, but I'm sure you get the idea about picking your rental car carefully.
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Sometimes driving the rural roads is a pleasure as we're treated to incredible scenery like the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand shown here
So with all the tips that we've provided in this article, we hope that you can benefit from all the lessons that we've learned in our travels. Even with all the rental car dramas that we had faced over the years, the priceless moments that we've shared far outweighed all the not-so-great moments along the way. Indeed, while it can be argued that independent self-touring, which often involves an international car rental, can be considered too much trouble, there's no denying that this kind of travel is far more rewarding and immersive (not to mention more efficient time wise) than what most people get to experience without this freedom. Think of it like a risk versus reward equation, where the more you put yourself out there into the unfamiliar and unknown, the more you stand to learn and experience in the end.
If you get a chance to see how many places we've been by looking through our website
, then you have a pretty good idea of how liberating immersive adventure travel (through waterfalling) can be. Rick Steves said it best when he essentially said travel is like life accelerated. And being able to give immersive international adventure travel a go (whether by self-driving or customized guided tour or both), you're well on your way to getting the most out of life!
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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